The next morning brought unnaturally pleasant weather to the residents of the Wolfram estate. One might have speculated this change in season was due to the influence of the lady in residence. However, as she stood with her husband watching the men assembling into groups, she looked completely relaxed.
A more reasonable conclusion would have been that the weather was changing on its own. And for the six groups that had been commissioned on this day to accomplish various tasks, this was a change most welcome.
Two of the six groups had already departed long before the sunrise. Of the four that remained only three would leave the estate.
Count Wolfram, as promised, stood guard with the last group that had been commissioned to stay inside the compound. His wife stayed close beside him; she was determined to use this rare time together to strengthen the bond between them. Unlike his previous outing, the Count did not appear to mind her presence. He seemed equally concerned about keeping her at his side –often offering her his arm for support as they walked about the grounds.
The lions that resided outside seemed to delight in following their lord and lady. The lions openly dreamed of a day when their master would fully be able to command the magic potential within the estate. Without a close companion, it had been near impossible to envision such a possibility. But this morning’s show of harmony made them believe that the day they waited for was quickly nearing.
But the two were not always of the same mind. True, when a tall, blonde youth emerged from behind the oversized wooden door to the main estate house, both simultaneously glanced his way. However, the Countess seemed poised to drop her husband’s arm to run to the youth. His response was to hold her arm. When she glanced up at his profile, she noted the stern look to his face. Count Wolfram was intent on observing Edmund.
The younger man examined the door. His bare fingers explored the surface, tracing the patterns that had taken up residence in the hazel door.
They guessed that Edmund wished to test his own powers. The Wolframs waited to see if the door would shift its shape under the young man’s pressure. To their mutual disappointment, it did not. Even so, the young man smiled to himself just the same.
What occupied his thoughts mystified the both of them. Edmund was, in spite of the blood that he supposedly shared with them, very much a stranger.
Neither had any right to demand any explanations or much of anything from the young man. Or rather, neither knew how to ingratiate themselves with someone who was, for all intensive purposes, raised as a human.
The Count belabored whether to approach the young man but kept his distance. However, the lions showed no such politeness. They stalked the young man as Edmund walked through the courtyard and asked him what he had seen on the door.
Edmund smiled. “Nothing, I’m afraid. I unfortunately paid little attention to it these past few days. Elanore told me that it was something she wanted me to see and experience.”
“Did you find in it what you were looking for?” came the cries of the lions.
“Perhaps,” he said. “I can see what she means when she says that the door is alive.”
His statement seemed to cheer the lions. “Alive, alive,” is what they whispered to one another as they trailed behind Edmund. If he believed that to be the case, then it must be so. “Like us!”
He shook his head slightly. “Not exactly. The door was once a living thing many years ago — long before you were fashioned. She says that a different kind of magic was used to shape it.”
“Elanore said that?” The lions seemed puzzled.
“No,” Edmund chuckled to himself. “But the door did.”
They did not question him further. The young man’s eyes were different today — clear and confident. He smiled as one who had something in which he could believe.
Instead, the creatures’ ears perked up and they listened. They were soon besides themselves in worry, embarrassed by their apparent error. “We must tell everyone to apologize and pay our respects to the door. She is older than us!”
The hunter laughed at their nervous chattering. “That will make everyone coming in and out nervous. It is not necessary. The door is content with the situation.”
His words did not assure them. Edmund did not attempt to soothe their feelings. Instead, he picked out the Count’s favorite among them and started conversing with him. “Gawain, you have not said a word. Is there any message for me today?”
Gawain had been silently following the mass of lions chasing Edmund around. He looked pleased by the attention offered to him, even bowing his head for a timely scratch on his mane. “No instructions today! I even asked!”
Edmund looked around,finding the Count and Countess watching. He did not appear surprised that they were close by. He bowed his head slightly, grateful that for once, the Count had chosen not to meddle with Edmund’s affairs.
This did not mean, however, that the Count had no interest in what the young man would do next. Fortunately for both the lions and the Wolframs, Edmund did not leave them all in suspense for long. There had been little question in his mind where his duties this morning lay. His parents — the persons who had raised him and not the one who claimed him as his son — were keen to have news of the conditions of the roads and their home.
Edmund made his way towards the guild men assembling beyond the courtyard. He coaxed the lions that followed him into an organized queue and reminded them how the others expected them to behave.
The lions were not exactly known for being patient and quiet. Several drifted away, choosing to play or find some other person to bother. However, there was no shortage of volunteers remaining that wished to accompany the guild outside.
The lions were, after all, keen to be of help and to learn something new. Those who stayed with Edmund chattered eagerly of all the things they might find on such a small trip. Each warm day was ripe with the possibilities of new discoveries. During the worst of the winter they had rarely spotted any normal creature save several kinds of birds in the trees. But now that the hungry beasts of the dark woods had vanished, the lions hoped the more timid beasts of the forest would emerge.
The stone creatures did not mean to eat those smaller animals. Their goal in hunting animals was simply to make more friends. This activity was difficult to do so within the compound. The guild men were serious and the wolves even more so.
In fact, several of the lions with Edmund grumbled to each other that they had the better lot than their brethren who had left earlier. They noted that the two parties of wolves that had departed before dawn were not very much fun.
Edmund quietly scolded them. It was because the wolves were not inclined towards fun that they were well-suited for exploring in darkness. They did not indulge their imaginations or in tall tales. Unlike the townspeople they did not dwell on rumors of evil witches and goblins in the woods. In fact, those who had left were among the most eager to disprove such a notion. They believed if there was a murderer to be found, it would be no mythical creature but an ordinary one.
In spite of his resistance to the idea that he might be a wolf, Edmund was among the first to admit that they were sensible creatures who were comfortable operating amidst uncertainty. They were resilient — far more able to cope with the previous day’s gruesome discoveries in town than their counterparts in the guild. Some guild members had been so disturbed by what they had seen that they chose to stay behind today and rest.
But just as Edmund praised the wolves, he could not bring himself to condemn his guildmates for their choices. After all, Edmund had not seen as much as they had.
As Edmund neared the crowd of men, he noted that the Count was not far behind him. His gaze fell upon the Count who responded by raising his eyebrow. His expression seemed to mock Edmund’s resolve to stay with the guild. The hunter frowned and turned his attention back to the gate where many of his guildmates assembled weapons and horses.
The party of guild men continued to loiter while they waited for their leader, Wilhelm. The guildmaster was late to appear outside and was then intercepted by the Count and Countess.
The three conversed for a brief moment before Wilhelm approached his party. The guild quickly gathered around their leader, knowing he had something to say.
The burly man’s eyes scanned the crowd before he spoke. “I am making a few changes this morning. The two advance parties sent back a few messenger birds. We know that the way up should be fairly easy. So we’re allowing a few additions to our party. Pepin is coming out with us, along with Gregory.”
A somewhat perturbed response ran through the assembled men. Both individuals were guild men but none were battle hardy.
Wilhelm glared at the murmuring crowd. “Both have something of a stake in this. Furthermore, they asked to accompany us knowing the risks.”
The old bookmaster Gregory dawdled at the edge of the crowd, looking rather embarrassed to have caused so much concern. The young invalid Pip, however, did not raise his head to acknowledge the others. He stood further away among a group of lions that had decided to guard him.
Edmund admired the lions for their decision to do this on their own. Once again they proved the superiority of their temperament. While others complained, these magical creatures would make the best of a challenging situation.
“And we shall be going to keep you folk honest,” another voice boomed out from the side of the gathered party. The way cleared slightly, revealing a grinning blacksmith and a pile of weapons. “I’m not just here to distribute weapons you know. And this one too–” he waved in the direction of a scowling Giles. “He is going to join.”
Wilhelm sighed at being preempted by the other man, well aware of the increased whispers and looks among his men that resulted from such noisy declarations. “Smith provides witness to the situation in the town. And the Count’s servant goes instead of the lord.” He raised a hand to quell any complaints. “Both are also aware of how we do things. All of our additions should be kept in the middle of the group. Keep lions in front of and behind the guests as a precaution. If others of those creatures wish to follow, they’ll have to take up positions in rear guard and advance guard to scout for trouble.”
Edmund did not have to repeat that last command for the lions. A dozen of them quickly began to fan out through the opening gates to form the advance group. Others moved to the side, waiting for the humans to pass on horseback before they, too, joined the party.
“Looks like I’ll be riding middle with you,” came a humorless chuckle from Giles as he overtook Edmund on his horse. “Bet this is the Count’s doing.”
Edmund glanced back to discover the Count watching them as they exited the estate. He, too, could not shake the feeling that the strange arrangement had been designed by the lord with some purpose in mind.
Bonus: Author post and sketch